Strawberry cheesecake like this may be stabilized and thickened with carrageenan.
Containers of pudding, ice cream, yogurt, or cottage cheese may include the ingredient carrageenan, a thickener derived from red seaweed. For decades, it has been presumed to be safe to eat, but new research from a medical doctor on the faculty of the University of Iowa shows that presumption may be wrong.
Carrageenan is a water-soluble polymer, also known as a gum, that is used as a fat substitute in processed meats and can be found in condensed milk and some soy milk products.
"Evidence from animal models has demonstrated that degraded carrageenan causes ulcerations and malignancies in the gastrointestinal tract," said Joanne Tobacman, M.D., University of Iowa assistant professor of clinical internal medicine.
After conducting epidemiologic and laboratory research on carrageenan, Dr. Tobacman published an extensive review of 45 investigations on harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. The article was published in the October issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
Findings over the years in Europe and the United States suggest that assumptions about the safety of carrageenan need to be reconsidered and that carrageenan may need to be better regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said Dr. Tobacman. "There seems to be enough evidence associating carrageenan with significant gastrointestinal lesions, including malignancies, to avoid ingesting it," she said.
"I think the first consideration is to inform people about the risks that have been associated with carrageenan," she added. "There was evidence back in the 1970s that carrageenan has harmful effects, and I think we've waited too long to act on that information."
In 1972 the FDA determined there was sufficient evidence from animal experiments to propose limiting the type of carrageenan that could be used in food products. "Many authoritative sources thought that the proposal actually became a regulation. However, it didn't," Tobacman said.
In 1979 the FDA rescinded the proposal yet at the same time indicated there would be a more comprehensive regulation in the future. But no restriction has since been proposed, so there is no substantive regulation of carrageenan in food.
"It's impossible to reconstruct the thinking that went on in the 1970s about regulating carrageenan," she said. "Apparently the FDA anticipated establishing a more comprehensive regulation, but none has been forthcoming. I find this discrepancy and the continued status of carrageenan as GRAS [generally regarded as safe] very disturbing."
Some folks can eat just about anything. Some people might
have no problem producing a tall glass of homemade soymilk,
then converting it to chocolate milk by adding the
following ingredients: Three teaspoons of sugar. One
teaspoon of chocolate powder. Two tablespoons of Vaseline
petroleum jelly. The Vaseline might produce gastric
distress, and the soymilk drinkers would erroneously
conclude that they are "allergic" to soy. Some people
do not experience gastric discomfort caused by the
Vaseline-like food additive, carrageenan. Many people do.
Carrageenan is a commonly used food additive that is
extracted from red seaweed by using powerful alkali
solvents. These solvents would remove the tissues
and skin from your hands as readily as would any acid.
Carrageenan is a thickening agent. It's the vegetarian
equivalent of casein, the same protein that is isolated
from milk and used to thicken foods. Casein is also
used to produce paints, and is the glue used to hold
a label to a bottle of beer. Carrageenan is the magic
ingredient used to de-ice frozen airplanes sitting on
tarmacs during winter storms.
IS CARRAGEENAN REALLY NATURAL?
Carrageenan is about as wholesome as monosodium glutamate
(MSG), which is extracted from rice, and can equally be
considered natural. Aspartame (NutraPoison) is also natural,
as it is extracted from decayed plant matter that has been
underground for millions of years (oil). So too are many
other substances such as carrageenan that can also be
classified by FDA and USDA as wholesome and natural
Just because something comes from a natural source does
not mean that it is safe. The small black dots in the
eyes of potatoes contain substances that are instantly
fatal if eaten. Got poison? You will if you eat the
black dots on the "eyes" of potatoes.
Carrageenan is a gel. It coats the insides of a stomach,
like gooey honey or massage oil. Digestive problems often
ensue. Quite often, soy eaters or soymilk drinkers react
negatively to carrageenen, and blame their discomforting
stomachaches on the soy.
High weight molecular carrageenans are considered to be safe,
and were given GRAS status (safe for human consumption) by
the FDA. Low weight carrageenans are considered to be
dangerous. Even SILK admits this.
In order to get more information about carrageenan from
a scientist, I spoke with one of America carrageenan
experts, Joanne Tobacman, M.D. Dr. Tobacman teaches
clinical internal medicine at the University of Iowa
College of Medicine. I explained to Dr. Tobacman that
I rejected animal studies (we discussed valid concerns
about animal research, and why they never produce
reliable results for humans). I requested evidence of
human trials that might show carrageenan to be a
danger for human consumption.
Dr. Tobacman shared studies with me that demonstrate that
digestive enzymes and bacterial action convert high weight
carrageenans to dangerous low molecular weight carrageenans
and poligeenans in the human gut. These carrageenans
have been linked to various human cancers and digestive
disorders. Again, I remind you that Tobacman's evidence
and conclusions are based upon human tissue samples,
not animal studies.
Research suggests that the food ingredient carrageenan contains degraded carrageenan, which negatively impacts gastrointestinal health and is recognized as a possible human carcinogen. Yet it is a common ingredient in foods, including organic foods. While it is unlikely that the government will take action to protect our health and remove carrageenan from conventional foods, we do have a chance to see carrageenan removed from certified organic foods. At the end of May, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board will be voting on whether carrageenan should be removed from the list of approved ingredients in organic foods. If you agree that organic foods should be free from potentially harmful ingredients like carrageenan, please send a comment to the USDA. The more comments they receive, the more likely they are to vote to remove carrageenan (the carrageenan industry will fight tooth and nail to keep it on the list of approved ingredients). An action alert, with instructions for submitting a comment to the USDA, is available at www dot cornucopia dot org/tell-the-usda-to-remove-carrageenan-from-organic-foods/.
The Cornucopia Institute just released a report compiling the scientific evidence linking the food additive carrageenan to gastrointestinal inflammation and disease. The press release and report are available at The Cornucopia Institute's website. They're also asking people who cut carrageenan out of their diet and who noticed improvements in their gastrointestinal health to fill out an online questionnaire which is designed to assist medical researchers in better understanding the impact of carrageenan on public health.